Canaan Fir, 50 years later

By Dave Saville

In 1970 a young Forestry Professor, Dr. Jim Brown, left WVU to take a job at Ohio State University. He was interested in Christmas Trees. His research spanned several decades. He is best known for his work on West Virginia’s Balsam Fir, which has come to be known as Canaan Fir.  

When the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy began its conservation efforts, in the face of a harmful exotic insect pest, the Balsam Woolly Adelgid, one of the first actions we took was to hold a meeting of the best and brightest minds on the subject. In 1999, with Refuge Biologist Ken Sturm, we organized this meeting, which took place at the newly established Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. With an attendee list which now looks like a who’s who of WV Conservationists, among the many who accepted our invitation was Jim Brown. It was at this meeting that our conservation strategy was developed. Dr. Brown was one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject at the time. 

In 1981 (pre-adelgid), with his Assistant, Chuck Vrotney, they came to West Virginia and spent weeks collecting seed from hundreds of trees from every location the fir was known to exist. They grew seedlings and conducted research on the progeny for decades to come. The seed was cleaned and stored in Quart Mason Jars, each jar containing the seed from one tree. The cones were collected from two places in Canaan Valley, one on Dolly Sods, Blister Run, and Blister Swamp. 

Numerous papers have been published on the matter since then. Dr. Brown has since retired and interest in Christmas tree production at Ohio State University has waned.  We recently got a call from Chuck Vrotney, also retired, who wanted to know if we would be interested in the remaining seed, which has been stored in those mason jars, at 20 degrees F for all these years.  Of course I couldn’t resist, so I drove to Wooster, Ohio, where the seed has been stored in the Ohio Agricultural Research & Development Center (OARDC) Seedbank all these years and spent the day with Chuck, and we loaded all the seed into my truck. 

Our Balsam Fir restoration work has been taking place in 3 of the 4 locations Dr. Brown and Mr. Vrotney originally studied.  Canaan Valley, Blister Swamp and Blister Run (Cheat Mountain). We have collected seed several times over the ensuing 20 years, and have grown tens of thousands of balsam trees we have planted back. Each source carefully grown from seeds collected at that source where we planted them in restoration projects. We currently have 5,000 trees being grown from Blister Run seed for Planting on Cheat Mountain in 2021, and another 5,000 for 2022. Every year we grow and plant thousands of fir trees in Canaan Valley, where we have also built several large deer exclosures to encourage regeneration. 

While our own collections have provided us with plenty of seed for our balsam restoration work in Canaan Valley, and also on Cheat Mountain, our work at Blister Swamp has stalled due to the mortality of all the seed producing trees there from the Adelgids.  We are excited to get this seed from Blister Swamp in hopes we can re-start our restoration work there. 

It was wonderful to hear the stories from Chuck about traipsing around in the West Virginia wilderness searching for balsam trees, carrying climbing equipment miles to the fir stands to collect the cones. Not unlike many of our own escapades. We will bring all this seed into our own seed lab, do some testing on it, open all the jars so they can get some air to the seed.  Eventually seed samples will be sent to the USFS Seed testing laboratory in Georgia for germination testing.  All the seed will be repackaged and returned to a seed bank for continued long-term storage. Hopefully we will be able to put some of the Blister Swamp seed into production asap.